After three ballot initiatives came before Utah voters in last year’s midterm election, state legislators passed various bills altering the ballot initiative process on both the state and local levels.
“My concern with initiatives is who is behind it, who is funding it?” said Rep. Val Potter, R-Logan. “If an organization with money is pushing the proposition to be spread either statewide, even nationwide, or locally, what is the reason for it? Is it good for the community, or is it good for the special interest group?”
On a state level, changes to the initiative process included creating a rolling total of petition signatures and removals as well as delaying the implementation of successful initiatives. Affecting a more local level, HB 119 requires municipalities and counties of certain sizes to create voter participation areas.
These voter participation areas will be based on their population size. In order for referendums and initiatives to get onto local ballots, a certain number of signatures have to be gathered from most of the areas, similar to the requirement on the state level for signatures thresholds to be met in 26 of the 29 counties.
Cities and metro townships with populations over 65,000 and counties of the first and second class are to create eight voter participation areas with comparable populations. In cities and metro townships with populations between 10,000 and 65,000 and counties of the third and fourth class, the number of areas is four.
The law requires these areas to be created by 2020, redrawn in 2022 based on the new census data, and then to be adjusted every 10 years based on the census.
The requirement does not apply to metro-townships with less than 10,000 people, cities of the fifth class, counties of the fifth or sixth class, or towns.
Although Logan’s population is less than 65,000, they were grandfathered into being a city of the second class, so eight participation areas will be created. Kymber Housely, the city attorney, said these areas were drawn up based on voter districts to make counting easier. The districts were presented to the council last week but have not been approved yet.
Cache County is still a county of the third class and will remain so for the next year to year and a half. Cache County Executive Buttars said the four voter participation areas have not yet been drawn for the county.
In addition to creating the voter participation areas, Potter said the bill creates more ways for local governments to share information about what the initiative or referendum would do if passed and ensure the measures are legal.
Mayor John Drew of Providence said he was supportive of HB 119 because it allows city governments to have a voice in the initiative and referendum process.
“It gives both parties the opportunity to state their opinion and the reason the choice was made. Otherwise, it is one-sided,” Drew said.
Earlier this year in March, the Providence council made a zoning decision and within the same week, a referendum was filed in opposition to it. This referendum will be on the 2021 ballot and the council cannot move forward on the issue until after the vote.
According to Housely, there has not been a single voter initiative or referendum on the ballot in the 24 years he has worked for Logan. Because of this, he doesn’t think the change will have much of an impact on the community.
“There have been people who have tried to get signatures, but nothing that has ever made it to the ballot,” Housley said.
Both Buttars and former County Executive Lynn Lemons said they have not seen voter initiatives make it onto the county’s ballot either.
Rep. Potter previously served as mayor of North Logan and said although residents filed a lawsuit over an issue while he was in office, he never saw an initiative on the ballot.
“Usually at a local level, it is easier for a city council or a county council to get together and make things happen. It is a lot easier because it is a smaller group and they can appease those who want to see change,” Potter said.
Both Potter and Daines said requiring signatures from throughout the city or county can ensure that issues on the ballot are of interest to the entire community and not just small groups of people.
“Usually these things are initiated by somebody that has been wronged by government,” Potter said. “This allows somebody to step in and put this on the ballot. I don’t know that that is always in the interest of the rest of the community.”
Housely said this additional step makes the local initiative and referendum process more equitable.
“To get something on the ballot, it ought to be more representative than one particular neighborhood,” Housley said.